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Voices: Some “doers” shouldn’t teach

English teacher Kate Mulcahy argues that passion for subject matter is less important than a passion for teaching.

I love writing. I would certainly have married it if I could, but contrary to what many believe, that’s not why I became an English teacher. Personally, I’m in it for the high. The teaching high; that wonderful sweeping feeling I get when I see my students burst with pride when they finally master a concept. That is why I became an English teacher.

And that is why any person should become a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong. Passion for one’s subject is important, crucial even, but it is not enough. In fact, I want to update the tired and insulting adage of “Those who can’t do, teach” by saying “Those who can only do, don’t teach. Please.”  It is not good for the teacher and it is definitely not good for the students.

For the teacher, a career built solely upon the love of one’s subject is not sustainable. In the Career Corner Education Week blog, one of the top two types of teachers listed as most likely to burn out is a teacher “whose true passion is in the content they teach.” I do not find this difficult to believe considering that state standards, curriculum mandates, and student behavior can have more power in deciding how teachers address the content in their classrooms than the teachers themselves.

And while this often frustrates even the most satisfied veterans, it can completely disengage a new teacher whose main reason for entering the profession was the content. These disengaged teachers frequently quit, adding to the already high turnover rate of the profession. But sometimes they stay in the classroom.

That’s when the real problems begin.

My first encounter with a content-focused, disengaged teacher was with Mr. Davis (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent). He was my junior year math teacher.  He was a mathematical genius: He could spout off any equation, its origin, and its use; he could lecture for hours about the history of math in various cultures; he could compute even the most difficult of problems in his head. There was no doubt that he was a math genius. However, there was certainly doubt about his ability to teach.

Students avoided his class like the plague. Many whined to their counselors to be placed in another class while others simply ditched the class and dealt with the consequences later. For the ones who did go to class, I had never seen so many students panic-stricken when test time came around. I had never heard so many students talk about their own stupidity in a subject. Personally, I had never felt so down on myself in a subject. Mr. Davis made math about him – not his students.

But the problem of ineffective teachers goes beyond the Mr. Davises of the world—even teachers with seemingly ideal dispositions aren’t automatically successful. A New York Times article states a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, or even ideal “teacheresque” personality characteristics do not accurately predict a person’s likelihood of succeeding as a teacher. Trying to identify the qualities of a good teacher seemed hopeless.

A person could have the whole package, intelligence, personality, demeanor, and more and still not necessarily be a successful teacher. Later this same article gave hope in finding a common thread between good teachers.  It noted “what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise.” In other words, a good teacher wasn’t necessary the package but the delivery of that package.

The key to successful teachers, classrooms, and students is helping teachers develop the art of this delivery. Organizations such as the Center for Teaching Quality are trying to support teachers in this endeavor by improving teacher leadership, educational research, and reform policies. However, no amount of support or education can help a person become a better teacher if being a teacher was never her or his main passion.

Our title – first and foremost – is teacher. Not math expert. Not English expert extraordinaire. Teacher. So if you can only write witty satires like The Onion or program like Mark Zuckerberg, please don’t teach.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.